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Full text of "African boy"




A 
011.54 

.646a 



UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2013 



http://archive.org/details/africanboyOOsarg 



77k? 

African 

Boy 



E. N. SARGENT 



The 



African 
Boy 



The Macmillan Company, New York 
Collier-Macmillan Limited, London 




A section of this book, under the 

title "Santos: Tempo Rumba," first 

appeared in The New Yorker. 



© The Macmillan Company 1963 

All rights reserved — no part of this book 

may be reproduced in any form without permission 

in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer 

who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with 

a review written for inclusion in magazine or newspaper. 

First Printing 
Printed in the United States of America 



The Macmillan Company, New York 
Collier-Macmillan Canada, Ltd., Toronto, Ontario 



Library of Congress catalog card number: 63-14531 
Designed by Andrew Roberts 



// a man does not keep pace with his 
companions, perhaps . . . he hears a different 
drummer. Let him step to the music 
which he hears however measured or far away. 



HENRY DAVID THOREAU 



African Boy 
give me my first soul, find the clay for my body 

give my second soul, 

shape the form in which I am to appear 
give then my third soul, the great one 
let me feel danger 
and let me return 

When I have been ransomed at slave=sell 

When I have made sixteen voyages under ground 

When I have become a shadow 

when I have gone into a tree 
give me my fourth soul 
Sekpoli 

sepkoli 



FA 
FA 

LEGBA 
DA 



The 

African 

Boy 



Part I 



AKBALA'S SONG 
or The Joining-of-Ways 



From a legend of Dahomey 



A strong-minded girl will make every effort to support the pain 
of the full series of ritual cuts . . . whose purpose is erotic and 
aesthetic enhancement . . . at one sitting. The fiance or lover 
of such a girl is exceedingly proud of her bravery. . . ." 

MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS 

The Dahomey, Vol. I 
/ think of the West African woman 



D. H. LAWRENCE 



Bring me the sword death carries, the knife that lives in the eyes 
The pain that enters the sight, the blade that lives in the rains 
I thought about you all night, my eyes wept red stains 
The knife went deep where the old cuts were; no cries 
Disgraced you, my brother, whose old cut is greatest of all. 

The long grass waits for us, softly uncut, 

Bending like green fire in the eye of the rains 

How good it would be to lie down under these green skies 

O! the knife went deep all the same 

I shall never let you forget the place of seeing 

Or the tears of blood that rise at your touch and fall 

Nor will I forget you, my brother, whose old cut is greatest of all. 



* Ritual Cut. 
(5) 




The cut of rain-wet straw, the longest cut, so that you will abandon 

yourself to my long hair 
Above the mark of those who eat the night 
Above the sign of those who drum the roads 
And the head=word 
Slanting 

aching 

As when you talk to me the lightest talk, your playful voice drews me 

in its snare 
These cuts become livid and pulse like the heart 
And there is nothing you need be told 
I have bled words 
Silently 

straitly 

You can see above ghosts and ancestors the deep-cut swelling 

of my exposed desire 
Where the shy brain joins love's second sight 
Eyes and mind humble to a double goad 
Your dread words 
Granting 

taking 

Let me entangle you forever in the rain of my hair, in the lines of 

my transfigured hair 
I already know the knife's burning art 
I already know the power you hold 
Over my cuts 
Violent 

fateful 

(6) 



I need these ornaments to move you, my lover 
The face has masks but I show reckless lines 
When I leave you to return to my house 

And you, going your way, look back at me 
You see these extreme patterns; strong 
As the knife itself they drive your sated heart 

Forward over the sinuous third vertebra of my spine 
Old wounds are in flower more than the others wear, 
Do not call me vain for each flayed opening 

More than is usual costs unusual pain 

Or in a dry season may drain the soul-shape 

Leaving only formless dust of beginnings 

Be glad I seek the strength to make your Being turn 

No dancer moves to an unmoved drummer; let the drum fall 

I need these wounds to move you, my brother, 

whose old wound is gravest of all 



(7) 



o 



You seek a rock=deep source in fury of water 

The face of maelstrom ways yielding as mine 

Among shattered parts a known, simple design, 

Seek there on the left cheek white at partings 

But dark now once more with memory 

Like the parakeet feather, like the sea-lily 

A mark no larger than the tip of the index finger 

A cut no smaller than the whole of farewell 

The ragged, round circle will not be still 

It is here that a man kisses a girl 

He sucks with his mouth, seeking, and cries, "Seek 

Me, red circle, drop within whirling drink." 



(8) 



Neck good to touch 
Stays in the hut 
Stiff as a bird 

flying away 
over a gray 
oracle tray 

Neck good to grip 
Slides in the shade 
Marked like a snake 

twisting a note 
high at the throat 
passion has caught 

Note of The Boa 
One note over 
The note heard 

coiling the nest 
crushing the breast 
rising possessed 

Chord on echo 
Forward the bright 
Unbearable flight 

over the neck 
where a caress 
shivers to rest 



(9) 




I can undergo additional pain now 

I will not wait another year for my full beauty 

I will not delay the bringer of my full strength 

The god of iron will not let evil result from these cuts 

I have offered food to Fate's Trickster, the first guide 

And he has eaten the seed within the seed 

(Half for him and half for my watching lover) 

They have given me money to heal earlier wounds, 

An adept, the expert of many paths will work on me 

I am not afraid yet 

Forward! the knife is freedom as well as love; 

Presence of my lover, friends, and of my kin 
You challenge me I seek the enduring honor 
Of one who will not leave a thing half-done 
Whether it be pattern or freedom or self 
Go on with the knife, go on with the festival 
I celebrate, and I am the celebration 
I choose and I am the choice and I am the one; 



A staff points downwards to the base of my spine 

Of all possible patterns I choose this mark 

My lover lights a fire with his slow, warm pressing 

He kindles the place with his hands 

The place is called pass=over * 

Because in play he passes his hands over it — 

Go away old people, I choose my lover 

I choose his male beauty, I choose the sword; 

I choose the staff with the sharpened head. 



(10) 



* glime: literally, pass=over. 



My own hidden staff draws him up 

Do you think I am a pit of ghosts, a hole? 

Alertness and conscious form be the price of freedom 

Not the voice which says "later — tonight" 

Take the hand which caresses now 

The friend of the inward staff 

Point upwards from darkness, bury the carcass of lies 

Cut, if you like, the hill of small pleasure 

But let the creature come to know itself 

For a living, feeling thrust of stem well-rooted 

For a sentient flower on a long stem 

For an upward leap from grasslands as the lightning 

Gather your strength from the red inward dance 

For a point of flesh meeting a point of flesh 

Meet here and we shall meet forever again 

As when the drum begins over and over 

The single pass called Joining-of-Ways 

Even under ground we shall meet, 

Make war against the shallow unburied death 

The dry death, the death by wind=voices; 

As in a green grove after hurricane the burned boughs 

show tender buds at will 

Distilling even from salt spray a marvelous sweet liquor in deep still 

Or as wan morning winds these most vulnerable buds 

with leaf of faintest rose 

Or as one road begins to resemble another and is ever so faintly all roads 



(11) 



As the water-bearer prints his heel on all dust 

and at once bites all luscious, reddening plants 

African Boy 

Move forward in my joys and tap the beat of my laments 

Distil the sweetness at the core of being 
As you distil the heart of the growing yam 
(only the knife knows the heart of the yam) 
Until the time of great deeds, of art and of feasting 
Lift swords! 

our infinitesimal liquid=flashing essence 
Patterns the living skin of the world 

DRUM 

eighty-one times on the inside of each thigh 

nine rows of nine horizontal cuts of push me * 

if I tire now hold me down show no mercy 
if I cower wish me 

covered with coldness cease now and I shall 
never hold a man's love bold master 

fearless of blood these terrible marks remain 
forever to scourge the coward 

out from the soft love=flesh from the tender 
inner fold of iridescent, incised thighs 

I want all things at once first ecstatic flesh 
with its tall deep freedom 

never mind the cost if it means melting 
down every brass bracelet 

cherish the rebel voice I want to make 

love and guard these joyful patterns 

the living water of love starts all beautiful free seeds 
and grows all human intuitions — those sweet 
plants with their idea=flowers 

* "zido" cuts: literally, "push me." 
(12) 



DRUM 



the living water of lovers of fighters against 
chains of free pattern-makers 

push me into the fire if I dance to any other 

beat he who has the drum is master 

And this day makes the drummer mine he shares 

the heat of the knife he knows how the cuts burn 

he offers his chest, his arms and the cups of his knees 
in sharing 

he laughs when the others try to drive him away 
he speaks sex= words into the cuts; 
jokes! stories of the baboon's ass, and 
of how the elephant — 

no one loves pain for its own sake! 

ah the cuts are made to excite, they 

are made for the fingers of fishermen 
and for hunters' thighs 

whose great staff rises to meet my 

womb=hook, Zeuzo * held within but always held 

high 

hold me, friends, that I may hold my brother 
hard for the sword that releases from bondage 
hard for the knife that releases patterns 

behold! 

I open my eyes and 

he of the house=roof of the forest path and of the boat 

he has brought gifts 

many=patterned cloths 
each more richly dyed 
(as the knife knows) than the one before. 



* Zeuzo: a hooked staff, sign of nobility among the Dahomeans. 

(13) 




In the mysterious dawn under house=roof , or white twilight 

I mix a pale liquid awakening from water as milk, 

My hour-glass left hand stirs in the calabash, 

I will give my beloved, who comes as a visitor, a love=sign 

Despite mother and father, despite curious children, 

sweet secrecy clouds between 

As I stir 

Akasa * and sugar 

Whiten my hand, hourglass patterns blanch, he has seen 

How I remember uncovered, serene long-singing times 

And though we may not embrace at the moment, he feels the past 

He bends down and kisses the cuts of my left hand now soft as silk 

In the presence of all, I give him sweetened drink; mildly; with the right. 



* akasa: a white herbal essence. 

(14) 




When I was a small woman enlarging the lips of my sex, they gave me 

a dancing-wand 
And told me the story of Akbala the strong girl 
Who saw with eyes of desire the "chameleon's mate" 
In the cult house 
praying 

chastely 

The Chosen One tried to drive her away: I am pledged to the god 

of this house for eight years and 
Joining of flesh is a sin in sacred places! 
But she seduced him, enticing him with songs, 
So he lay down 
obeying her 
fatefully 

While they mingled, the jealous god grasped the boy by the neck and he died; 
Akbala, though, would not be driven from his body, 
She defied the angry priests : He will awaken, 
Here I stay 
today 
and 
always 

Then they built a great fire of bitter leaves and placed the empty boy upon it 
Pouring palm oil over him to burn away her love; 
The spirit of the boy watched from a tree how his body 
Turned ashy gray 
painfully, 
hatefully 



(15) 



If I do not enter the fire with him I shall live in loathing of myself, 

said Akbala; 
She began to sing, and when she had finished her song 
She threw herself into the flames. O 
Fear-full parts 

belly and heart 
be brave 

Remember the beautiful vodu boy and the strong girl who loved him 

even in the fire 
Remember how they walked forth hand in hand 
Unharmed, their bodies moving in harmony 
Remember that 
when you faint 
or fail 

Remember how the villagers danced, and how the King ordered them to 

gather and hear his command: 

"I, Metonifi, the first King of all the world, I who rule the gods, 

destiny, the animals and man, 

I tell you, every child, even one called by a god to the cult house, 

must be allowed to play with women and see the sun — " 



Dance, my heart, to Akbala 

her story has power, 
If you break the rule it changes; this pattern has power; 
Therefore knife, upon my belly blaze the chameleon 
Subtler than the leopard, swifter than the crocodile, one 
mutable way 
daring 
and 
graceful 
(16) 



I need your deep cut to move me, my lover 
No ornament would ever turn these limbs 
Quick to your fancy passing and repassing 

Over the same ground unashamedly 

You cease to be ashamed of your love=hurt 

Lost, buried in sand there will be songs 

You least expect of prophecy and desire 
To follow the burden of the drum you bear 

Instinct and intellect are and do the same 

As lovers' fluids they rouse the core and shape 

With living flow each uninformed beginning 

They wake the sleeping drum, the dancers call, 
And I - 

I need your dangerous wound my brother, 
Your grave ordeal, your ancient burn and scald, 
I need your loss, your cised song to move me, 

whose burden is greatest of all. 



(17) 




Africa, with the sun spread out on her breast, pride 

Of many ornaments; arms, forehead, perpendicular lines between the eyes 

On temple, on the cheeks, on the neck 

On the chest, at the back of the neck, at the base of the spine 

On the lower abdomen and finally on the thighs! 

I praise these variations 

Both in the number of cuts given at any one time and the order in which 

designs are placed upon the body, 

Africa, with her limbs stretched to the sun 

And her Children of the Hunter, who-are-poor-people — 

"We have come 

If it is well you shall see 

If it is not well you shall see" 
Mother who will not let them forget the place of seeing 
Within the mask sing who has sent her child to deliver me. 



(18) 



I feared to be carried off by the dark, out of mind, 

My whole life borne apart as or in a dream farther and farther 

Then desperate farthest; but not by death; 

Not death does this nor madness nor crossing water, nor the gods 

with their signs 

But separate ways within too low or too high 

For one nature; 

I feared my own person, with its sexual powers, its reckless 

leaping - forward! and the patterned 
marks of experience on its soul=shape; 

Captured, each one chained, hungering and alone, 

These separate selves were slaves to an impure master; 

We have come 

If it is well you shall see 

If it is not well you shall see 
Song limned in the dark to hold back fear 
Join us, silver-eyed, who are blindly gathered here. 



(19) 



He who partakes of all offerings but who is not a god 

He who feeds the children of the serpent and the bird=children living 

in-a-hole, and the pig= 

Children-stubborn-people; those of the word which causes laughter 

— and those of the river of blood 

Also people of the route of the sun, and children=iron= within; 

And also swamp waders; 

He who keeps the leopard, the crocodile and the boa and the dog, 

Who leaps with the chameleon but who is not he: 

We have come 

If it is well you shall see 

If it is not well you shall see 
Let him come forth at last to the place of seeing 
The naked stranger with his male beauty 



(20) 



Men of force, impotent men of impure fancies haughty 

Givers of bad counsel, you wanted me pale and helpless to serve your ends 

You offered me brass bracelets to deny my sex, and I listened 

Ashamed of my leaping fancies of man and mask 

Among the impotent nations - 

How the wheat-field is gold=dark like a strong man 

And how the strong lover is like the rippling wheat 

We have come 

If it is well you shall see 

If it is not well you shall see 

Daily bread to the children of prophecy and desire! 

Towards the end self blossoms into self, 

flowing into ether and fire. 



(21) 



Brothers, do not forget the mother who gave us food warmed 

By her fire or cool and fresh from gardens known to us or unknown, 

Remember her reckless games with staff and snake 

And sword and dancing-wand! her fanciful times, 

Remember her voice which is a wild yet perfect drum 

Praise her variations 

Her changing tempo and tone, the numbers of patterns worked in 

line and color upon her body, and 
always within 

The power that moves the dancers 

"We have come 

If it is well you shall see 

If it is not well, you shall see — " 

Children whose song is limbed with fire like the planets at her knee 

Lovers and heroes, masquers come darkly yet with her infinite eyes 

and bear forth me. 



(22) 



Part 1 1 



IN THE BOAT 

Chants from the Yoruba 



We bring sweet honey" 

Fisherman's song, Traditional 



Unwinder of free 
Tidal journey 
Glider to sea 
By sea-lily 
I will not be 
Tied to a tree 
They buy the body 
For five brass bracelets 

Strike with your ranging iron axe 
Eight dancers bending down in their tracks 
Eight dancers upright as lances 
Shaking their iron bells like chances 
And two other secret ones in trances 
With blood and ashes on their backs; 
Loose the possessed ones lying in stacks, 
The true secret is the awakening! 

They take the dream-soul 
And break his double 
A slave's children 
Remain slaves 
No day is as sweet 
As the day a tree falls 
Speak with your hand 
Inside me 

They cut the sex of maiden kind 
They make a cannibal of the bride 
They show where the young man is tied 
With no lover to hear his cry, 
The maiden must pierce her lips or die, 
She might tell dangerous secrets, I 
Speak to you, knower of grass 
Rower in the race 

bringer of sweet honey. 



(27) 



II 



On each side the gold=green land moves filled with endless desire 

A sparkle of creatures undimmed by day and unquenched by night 

Who with their kernels, like palm nuts, of ceaselessly sharpening life 

Turn to each other though linked and murmur and clasp and bite 

With a splendor of spending the boatman, under no roof, takes for a Sign 

Witness of fate, his orbit averting the long envious tide 

If we could know thee in full we might safely bathe in thy smile 

And the seeing into all creatures that is thine eye, 

Sign burned into the riverside tree on the right side 

Letters buried in bark at the recurring mysterious site 

Forgotten script of termite and the larger poets who work in the light 

Birds, rodents, antler-shedders and man two-legged with his pouch of fire 

Who told him how to strike flint subtly and take fire to wife 

Man, intent on his artful, individual, unconsidering design 

Man is there and the hunter hunts him with a great silent cry. 



(28) 



Ill 



Not but there is something fitting about all this: 
Who can string the frog's beads about his child's wrist 
Or pull the thread of a spider to mend his wind 
Or bandage his head with bees, or tie his tongue with nits? 
You cannot avoid the everlasting, inward-breathing kiss 
Or fail to return outward if you do not wish to be killed. 
The young man never hears the death of his pointed stick 
The young woman never hears the death of her woven shift. 
Who looks at beauty and does not see it will never be skilled 
Who looks at beauty and will not see it loses his wits 
Who looks at beauty and cannot see it will soon be kissed. 
The gold-tipped arrow of beauty is often shot to miss. 
The patterned green beads of beauty are often loosely pinned. 
The infinite winding beauty may turn on the arm and hiss, 
Who looks at beauty and sees may heal the claw-fingered sick; 
Ecstatic bended river-arm,* open your living gift! 



* Root of sound, vocalized breath of one 
swinging an axe. 

(29) 



IV 



Honey was the first measure of when you knelt 
Voiceless as a bent fledgling before a snake 
Will-less as the furry place hawk delves 
How much honey do you carry over the waves 

Summer in a gourd, treasure in store I brought 
Coming at a word to spend the hoarded pay 
Comb-sweet honey, the share of times lost 
All the honey I could carry out of the grave 
All the honey I, the soft unborn 
Could carry away in unimagined hands 

And then you felt how choosing shape began 

And sang 

You winds, 

Carry me along! 

Honey of the first, formless, desiring choice 

Uttered in the fast flow of a rising stream 

How shall we sing the darkly clouded joy? 

How much honey to win the mouth of the sea? 



Boatman's song: "You winds, Carry me along." 
(30) 



Hunters and fishermen sing of the plants and animals 

They find on their lonely walks or at night gatherings; 

They sing the earth=sound green-gold and sexual, 

The E sound on the drum and in language : 

The red feathers are the pride of the parakeet 

The white flowers are the pride of the green leaves 

Two tiny birds jump over two hundred trees * 

Our mascot delights women and the barren seas 

He is strong and patient, he does everything to please, 

He leads the male to the female when floods recede; 

A great staff guides the bee on his aching track 

A green staff guides the flesh on his pilgrimage 

A belled staff guards the self on his f atherings, 

He knows where the enemy mates and where he feeds, 

He keeps the keel of the boat deep in the stream, 

He has songs for the deceived and herbs for those who bleed, 

He can understand the crocodile's cold shadow. 



* Riddle — (the eyes). 
(31) 



VI 



Lullaby, lullaby 
Watcher over my child 
Who knows the crocodile 
Hungry, gray-eyed 

Armored crocodile 
Hating the unseined stars 
Where the great snake 
Ripples endlessly 

The sky is immense, crocodile 
Jealous of warm blood 
Yours is not the only law 
"deliver the truth and die" 

We have seen the Sea=lily 
Riding with her red bud 
To keep the cold crocodile 
From gnawing down the sky. 



(32) 



VII 

You winding shape 

Of rivers ocean bound 

Nakedness of waves 

Flowing into sound= 

Shape of floating flower, 

Help me to escape 

Crocodile power, 

Ride the planet's back 

With staff and song 

— You winds of space 

Carry me along 
Climb the sky rack 

Seek The Boa 

Call him poet 

Who is born in a boat 

By sixteen oil lamps 



(33) 



VIII 



Lover of wildness, remember the youth who went into the leopard's lair 

When your desire journeys up the ocean-river to an unimagined shore; 

The leopard's eyeballs burn without sense, his cave is a rank house of fear 

The tail of the leopard is never at rest, birds and rabbits are not in his stews 

Power and pride are his claws — the hidden ones — men fear him everywhere 

When the drums awaken him people cover their ears and close their doors 

Nobody goes outside, the leopard's wild friends would eat them alive, 

They glower, with shrieks of a fury not hunger they tear their shameful food; 

Yes, I know the leopard, but a strong lover may touch the leopard 

and live 

I am of the race who of old threw away their dead-stroking wooden oars 

Of those who used their live hands for paddles, I am of the 

* Unexpected People 

Whose Queen, **Sungbo made a great voyage northward seeking her 

clews, 

I am of the singing people who built the great wall of Ile-Ife I am heir, 

I am owner of four thousand six hundred and ninety six oracle 

poems of Odu *** 

When I know the tone, my iron-blooded flesh-hooded song may stroke 

the untamed air 

Covering its wildness with caresses until the whole creature trembles 

like a soft, spotted ear. 



* Yoruba: literally translated. 
** "Sungbo": the Queen of Sheba. 
*** Odu: verb, "you exert." 



(34) 



IX 



spirits of the east 
spirits of the west 
spirits of the sea 
spirits of the north 

You come from Ile-Ife, land of love; 
as you do there so do here; if in truth 
you come from the land of heroes 
tell the secrets of this man's heart 

This man's heart feels change, he becomes 
soft as the unborn; he chooses his second shape; 
he has two names; as they do in Ile-Ife, 
land of song, so do here 

he is driven forth 
knives cut him free 
how much honey 
will you carry to the feast? 



(35) 



X 



With his staff between my breasts 
With his great staff between my fingers 
With his mild guiding staff sharpened 

and his eyes sparkling like fire, 
With the green beads of infinity 

wound about his left wrist; 

Hunter of secrets 

Mender of nets mender of heads 

mender of the mating of plants and animals 
Driver of the first desiring choice 
Watcher over my child; 

Glider to sea by sea=lily 

Lover of wildness but not of the leopard 

save his soft, spotted ear 
Owner of the knife 
Sharer of the feast 

Our boat is frail 

I feel the underswell 

My honey=offering trembles in the hold 

The waves of time beat against the gunwales! 



(36) 



XI 



Call them heroes who go forward without ceasing 
Call him poet who goes forth to return 
Call him a sacred king of Ile-Ife 
Who passes through famine and the cities of death 
Call him poet who rejoices in the staff 
Who rejoices in the race to deliver sweet honey; 
You know the cold eye of the crocodile 
You know the warm red of the sea=lily 
You feel the outward-pouring, sinuous current 
Bringing you and taking you away 
Shaken, do not call The Unshaken Tone 
On open water or beneath low leaves 
'Offspring of The Boa wearing-the-crown, 
Changeless-in-changing-tide, Untiring One — ' 
Let flow sweet freedom, terrible to slaves! 

How much honey do you carry over the waves? 



(37) 



XII 



We do not sing a mourning song without death 
We do not sing a boating song under house=roo£ 
Or a racing song without honey 

We do not call on the one who is nameless 
There are no praise-names for the unknown one 
We bring a calabash of sweet honey 

It is sacrilegious to sing when feelings have not been aroused 
It is death to sing without the tone of the heart 
Such song is the spoiling of a secret 

Let me not sing the spoiling of a secret 

Let them not say I kept death under my cloth 

As the gods arrive, unexpectedly, let me sing 

Joy to the hunter and boatman, joy to the guide 

Joy to the Staff which brings me this far 

Joy to the voyage, joy to the streaming waters 

Winds, you winds carry me along 

With golden-streaming honey, sweet- to- worship. 



(38) 



Part 1 1 1 



AWAKENING OF A DRUM 



In the ceremony of awakening a drum, 
there will be the refrain 7 am 
learning, Let me succeed' or alternatively 
7 am listening, Let me understand' . . . 



The great human serpent over everything- 



WILLIAM JAMES 



Let there be an awakening! 

— Some say a man and a woman descended from the sky 

They held hands 

(the dead hold hands while crossing rivers) 

They passed through the four magically protected entrances 

They passed over the mountain that separates the two worlds 

— Take away the songs sung in your honor but not the voice of the singer 

Take the drum rhythms but not the drummer! 

— The dancer throws his body from side to side 

— Now at last there is time 

to tell the resilient life 

of sacred things 

— Some say everything that happens has already happened in the sky 
These do not wear masks, do not pierce their ears 
(what is said will not go inside one ear and out the other) 
They do not cicatrize their bodies, saying, man cannot improve 

upon the creation of the gods 

They do not celebrate the earth; their vodu is a shining mirror 

called Dark=Bright 

But these allow human sacrifice . . . 

— Some say in the beginning was a sacred cage= 

Dwelling for patterned serpent-life 

(if the center is alert no harm can come) 

I am listening 
Let me understand 



(43) 



We know a gigantic tree in the depths of a vast forest 

A great snake hanging down, reaching and reaching 

Down to the center of the earth, always downward 

When it touches the earth it is long enough and strong enough 

to reach the sky 

— Protect us as you protected the first woman and man 
Against ourselves, against each other 

against human sacrifice 

Against what will not let a thing be born 

Against "we do not know what we do not wish to know" 

— Ever since the manifold creator created things 

The drummer is treated gently and kindly 

(he drums so that he may get something to eat) 

I am learning 
Let me succeed 



(44) 



— Wisdom and earth=joy, twisted iron and a bell 

You who opened a man's and a woman's eyes (for we were born blind) 

If you are gods speak now and defend yourselves 

Or you will be disemboweled, roasted and eaten 

What may be called the serpent, what may be called children of the serpent 

Born with royal patterns of nerve-cells 

Full of serpent=life prophetic craft and skill 

Awaken! 

— Deep in the bush deep in the inmost tree 
All things flexible, sinuous and moist 
Are 

All things that fold and refold and do not move on feet 

though sometimes they go through the air 
The rainbow has these qualities plant=roots the umbilical cord 
And the life of man, the one who is asked to explain; 

Listen to the drummer: 

If the gods are called they come; in whatever tone they are called 

they come, but larger 
Therefore wisdom says it is better to make masks 
Ritual and form and memory 
The things the gods love in man 

the dangerous and disproportionate gods 
For himself man has the unseen serpent=life 

I am listening 
Let me understand 



(45) 



Drums and shadows tell us where we are 

where we have been 
and where we shall be 

In the vast forest that opens like a fan 

with many ribs 
Or a cage of sacred staves 

One of our members bears the unbearable 
Feels on his cheek the forbidden insult 
And we who drum feel with him 
His mark appears upon us with its pain 
We rise as one spirit 

brothers 

whatever our vodun 
Come 

Running-at-once from horned Togoland to the worm of Whydah 
From Ghana's Ewe hills and perhaps even farther (who knows 

how far they come) 
straight-as-a-spear 

running-mad-through-the-villages-until-insult-is-avenged 

Nothing stops them they set fire on fire 

No chief or chief's wife remains no palace or temple 

The sacred cage is carried aloft 
Poets, singers dancers all run mad 
The living drum and the dead answer 

They drum and the living reply 

Heroes awaken single perilous exploits 

Act without ancestors or procession 

(if-the-center-is-alert-no-harm-can-come) 

Inside the cage the serpent=life moves 

Far away a pale shadow comes 
Through hills and waters moving to my drum 
Echoing my beat with a pulse small as grass 
Listen to the white shadow: 

(46) 



In the long night of awakening my eyes began to be wet with tears 

We answer, Fire eats grass until it comes to a fast runner 

I ask, why was I given a green life? 

No need to fear 

You will only be as many others are 

And if the breast shrivels and the babe hides his face 
Hides his face in his hands like an old man 

No need to fear 

You will only be as others are 

And if I watch him die, if he shrivels in my arms like a leaf — leaf of my 

bough 
If we lie down on the earth and the earth withers 
If men come with seed and there is no longer lust for planting 
And then if we eat the seed — how shall I make them see it? 

No need to fear 

You will only be as many others are 

Now I must make them see him, now or never again 
Our little brother withered, his blood fouled with hunger, 

no moisture for his tears 
His mother with her stretched grin of grief beyond grief 
Look! they are there and we are here, eating, 
All must die; those two will die sooner but we shall die forever 

if we do not see them 

No need to fear 

You will only be as others are 



(47) 



What if the war comes and we go as they go 

Alone to the festival, alone yet not alone 

But with a babe at breast and unspeakable death drifting down, 

The green greyed from our land, the thousand-year delights of 

craft and skill 
Gone in an instant — what of the dry river-bed we shall know 
And the stone upon stone the fire upon ashen fire? 

No need to fear 

You will only be as others are 

My cord is buried under a secret tree 

If a figure is carved from the wood am I that figure? 

If a mask is fashioned from the bark am I that mask? 

My tree is a sanctuary for serpent=life 

The snake likes to be there with a long reaching 

With a long touching, until it is time, of every thing 

What if they take my cord 
What if they take my tree 
What if they take my reaching? 

No need to fear 

You will only be as many others are 

Listen: 

The serpent goes free where there is water 
Needs mingling of male and female fluids 
Needs the living water of voyages 
In silent mornings 

I am learning 
Let me succeed 



(48) 






The serpent's sign is an ear like an eye 

Double flower open to the word and the tone= 

Color I have a daughter 

She is a white lily, a white rose, cyclamen white= 

Blooming in the time of great snows, at a sunny window 

Let her not wait for a lover drunk with carnage 
Let her not wait for a soldier back from the wars 

who smells of death in the morning doorway 

Changed by the western star, she was formed of disasters overcome 

Caress this lovely head of Europe lifted by the breathing wind 

and planted here 

Give her milk and sweet water, and a supple, knowing body 

Give her the African heaven of dancing ghosts, 

of palm trees and yams 

of the long, warm evening sun 

Talk to her from Madagascar 

Serpent=wise through the jungle 

sing to her 
From the Ewe mountain that separates the two worlds 

Snake=wise 

rainbow=wise 

along the ocean=river 
Your tone comes in the blood 

hold her as a friend 

The shape of your tone is litheness intertwined 

/ am listening 
Let me understand 

Enfold her once or infinite twice 

Before you coil away to touch the Indian strand . . . 



(49) 



I know a small room in a vast city 
Deep in a maze of tangled, living stone 
The serpent is there with a strong reaching 
Downwards, ever down to the center of the stone 
Touching the life of man gone 

far to the last darkness 

Flowers grow there darker than last years 

The red gone purple, the purple gone to black 

By some subterranean stream 

I am only a leaf of grass 

Come to dip in your waters alone 

And not with secret strength or hidden friends 

wan in your darkness 

From the pass that separates the two worlds 

From the joining of ways 

Even from the boat I have come 

Do not be afraid I have not come to drink 

I have not come to take 

I am only a leaf of grass 

dipping in the stream 

Of the great snake 

Who ripples and reaches and tenses 

Touching the center of the earth and the bright-dark sky 

Who ripples and reaches 

— / thought I heard the voice of a white woman 
Singing our songs beside an Ewe stream 
I thought I heard the tone of the white woman 
Across the mountain that separates the two worlds 

Let her look upon the farthest eyes of darkness . . . 



(50) 



I am only a single blade of grass dipping, 

dipping in the stream 

Do not be angry, I have not come to drink 
I have not come to take but only to wash 
To lave myself in living rippling waters 

To freshen to strengthen to redden my pale root 

I went to read my poems in the Capitol 

There were vultures circling over the Library of Congress, 

The fountains with their green dolphins and humans 
were drained dry that day 

An oriental prince drew a crowd in the domed marble hall 

with its turquoise and scarlet 
and carnelian 

There were no new words in my poems; 

High in the mosaicked dome Dante Shakespeare and others 

appeared letters of gold 

I went down to the cellar and read in a sound-proof room 

The lines I had written they choked me; I thought I heard a drum 

shadow of darkness 

Calling across the hills and the many waters; I thought 

of my self 

And how I, a woman, was reading poems into those crypts 
to hold so long as the capitol stands, 

There were no new words in my poems; 



(51) 



Where is a word touching woman-and-man 

How do you tell the live touch=root with ever-changing flowers? 

We have a way of saying wound and a way of wounding 

If we could speak the opposite we might know our next knowledge 

that dark dimension of greatness 
sensed, sometimes, at the end 
of a lifetime or at nightfall 

There were no new words in my poems; 

What is the opposite of a wound? I asked myself that, 

The tears flowed over my cheeks against a blow 

I thought what is the word . . . closer and closer . . . 

I thought I heard a drum 

From a land where the women, even without bread, are poets 

I thought I heard of soul=health woman-and-man 

There were no new words in my poems; 

We went up to a high chamber overlooking the green 

Trees, roofs of the town all verdigris in the white spring light 

yet golden with approaching summer 

From a wide balcony I could view the blanched limestone 

and marble splendor 

My tears ran down over the dry water-sculpture and the many tombs 

There was no new word in my poems; 



(52) 



An ancient silence held me chain of a word 

held back too long in a dry throat 

My freedom was too new, my fancy leapt half -formed 

and disproportionate 

The serpent fed from my hand from behind bars 

his head came through 

I feared those ambiguous fangs (drawn or withdrawn?) 

where death may yet take all 

There was no true word in my poems 

The world is a spacious place yet how narrow is our room 

— I would not call the great goddess 

whose hand is as large as the dark 
side of the world 

I would not call upon her son and mate 

The wise do not call upon the gods 
— Shadow of darkness I am calling, calling 

Far away 

borne on by streams of ocean 
The African Boy came 
He wore no glass beads, cowrie shells or gold 

Sent forth from his mother, who knows the lost truth of the night 

With many sayings and many a vodu 

To give him power over the blind, who must have something to touch 

The forest people carved an image of him, but not frightful like a god 
iliey made him human, of soft brown wood of the Serpent's Tree 
And then, because he was afraid, they limned his eyes with silver 
so that he might see into all 

and be seen by all 

who fear the dark 



(53) 



Human they made him and human they made his mother with her 

heavy bracelets and her large limbs 
scarred from the birth-hut how many hands 
have clawed her frenziedly? 

He mourned his dark mother on the alien shore; 
She too has silver eyes to reflect firelit festivals 

but her face is charred 
how many times has she gone with bare-breasted terror 

through deserted streets? 

In a pale land cold among the unseeing 
I saw the figure of a boy stand up for sale 
Carved form motionless on a block, 
Brave knees of a four-year-old he was like my son 
And that look of knowing a task for the first time. 
People of the forest, what is the errand you sent him on, 

the young hunter? 
Why did the African Boy cross the water? 

Ah you have made him well with his vulnerable loins and his 
clenched fists from which the staff was torn 
Sign of nobility he might not carry among strangers 
You made him well 
But there are nails in his hands where the staff was, and 

the mark of tears on his cheeks 
Old tears child's tears run over and over and down; 
Shadows of the forest, you taught him well — the game finds the hunter! 

But why did you send him naked across the water? 

— There is a bird who when she soars her daughter does not grieve 

There is a bird who when she sings her son does not die 

Perhaps he has come to hunt that bird 

Or perhaps he has only come to change and grow 

To strengthen to freshen to redden his dark root 

Throw off your old slavery, white woman, and hear a word 

From a land where the women even without bread are poets: 

(54) 



He comes BIA: to strengthen 

with drum-beats 

with horns of eerie sweetness 

and with the streaming honey in his hands 

bia he comes to freshen 

with life=color 
and with a long vine 

to redden: bia 

with serpent=life 

that ripples and reaches 
and tenses 

I redden 
my self bia 

you redden 

you become red 

you grow vivid inside-and-out 

bia takes on earth-power 
serpent=life 

nerve=life loose in the world 

we kiss we caress 

sexually we know 

esthetically we know 

you join in knowing 

you plant joy 

you nourish individual roots 

they redden man-and-woman if both be free 
they redden dark-and-light freely 
they redden all, if all be free 



BIA: to redden 

(55) 



to allow a thing to be born 
to travel from open town to opening town 
with chant and festival and drum 

to-be-and-to-know the inward wreathing 

color and line 

I say wait for the next arrival 

If you call a thing it comes 
renewed 
in 
human 

touch 



bia Let those who seek the hunter find the hunter 
Let those who see love=freedom join ways 

I am learning 
Let me succeed 

Let those who seek the serpent touch the serpent 



I am listening 
Let me understand. 



(56) 



TEMPO RUMBA 

"We Are Reborn' 



Who is it speaks to me among the dancers? 
It is the god Damballa 
riding fast 

riding far 

riding all the way from Africa 

Dance the colors of life and I shall watch 
Dance the deep unfathomable night sky 
Darker than purple, darker than dark black 
Dance the white beads of the sun and stars 
Paler than pale amid the shadow^ worlds 

Who is it touches me among the dancers? 
It is the god Damballa 
he who is so tall 

with long fingers 

and the five-beat 

Dance the gold of honey, the green=gold 

Of the gods' strong names one of them is so strong 

That if I say it the whole world disappears from view 

"Aido-Husu " 

"I-speak-in-my-own-voice-and-I-am-understood" 

Who is it reaches down among the dancers? 
It is the god Damballa 
the great traveler 

rainbow rider 

dark=bright 



(59) 



Dance the blue of thunder for seven days it will storm 
With wild and terrible rage like that of the newly born 
Dance the brass blade which carries the serpent on both sides 
And whose candidate comes forth from the dark shrine alone 
- Softly, softly, it is only your father 

BA BA LU 

Who is it holds the serpent by the neck? 
It is the god Damballa 
stranger on the shore 

riding fast 

riding without fear 

Dance the red color of the three-day madness 

(There is a bird who when she sings her child does not die) 

A child, a child does not quarrel with its mother 

MA MA LU 

But if I cut the bird's throat and the blood runs 
Over and down? 

Blood cries for blood 

I am your child says the drop of blood on the stair 

I am your dear child says the red place on the floor 

I am your own dear child says the dark place in the bed 

A child, a child does not need to fear its mother 

BA BA LU 

MA MA LU 



(60) 



Sweep the house and all about it 
For a friend comes from afar 
yield, keepers of the door 

it is the god Damballa 

who rides here 

It is He 

The dark traveler 

with the rainbow between his knees 
bright horseman on the shore 
and the birth=cord long liana 

Wild-grape vine free 
Holding-us-together 

serpent leaping in his hand 

he is near 

he is quite near 



Living hand hold my hand! 
A cry is heard) 



Gesti 

Gesu= 

Damballa 



DAMBALLA LU 



(61) 



FIVE LYRICS 



African Violet 

tender leaves, full of life's fluid 

light=red blossom 

whatever delicate is given to this hand 

whatever needs the morning sun 

and succulent springs to drink 

and warm nights 

give grace to touch 

give quiet breath 

give conscious flesh 

give tender mind 

Light red 

let me cut your leaf 

listen to things sometimes rather than beings 

or wait for you to double and part 

African darkness, yield midnight art 

let him come forth at last to the place of seeing 

figure cut from a tree 

silver-eyed 

conscious of death 

carved by the lash 

his warm thoughts 

frozen in hard rivers 

I hate to see that evening sun 

go down in this child's untouching land 

Blossom of red light 

let our touch be renewed. 



(65) 



The White Cyclamen 

the palest flower 

keeps red stems 

downy as an infant's ear 

or the sunny side of a pear 

and her petals, even in the white 

light of noon 

give back glow 

give live vein 

in the hush 

of a loving mind. 

Who tends 

her has loveliness all year long 

This is a good plant, and strong 

I see him standing above her 

His hands unsteady yet ready to love her 

his face still green with self reddening a bit; 

he trembles but touches her, with lucky wit 

parts the flowers to see red stems 

heavy and lush 

his own vein 

grows heavy to know 

her scentless swoon 

his face reflects her softness day and night 

she has him in her snare 

She draws him near 

and he comes 

each day truer, a tightening drum. 



(66) 



Woman And Man 

this way 
that way 
where is the way 

Let it come to you like rain on house=roof , 

beating, like drums to the dancers, 

the tight red skin of a drum, the 

plucked string of a harp 

the flute 

holding a stop 

be always there like the rainbeat 

the light tapping on taut skin 

to the dark female nerve 

be the flute=bird 

in me 

in you 

by true touch 

I feel a sharp swerve 

to my song, male and taut 

I am there like the rainbeat 

holding a stop 

I suit 

your bright red skein of inward muscles, 

these I draw 

streaming, like dancers to the drums 

let it come to you like rain on the roof 

there is the way 
that way 
This way 

(67) 



Dark=Bright 

what a way to look at the morning 

what a day 

when the rainbow of the brain 

flashes red rays 

of interior sunrise all scarlet 

in the sun's gaze 

the ghostly flowers wake 

Thirsty calling, take my heart and slake 

your mouth all day long 

here is black bread and strong 

crimson wine 

Take the experienced one, bear him forth out of mind 

You farthest god, make me more delicate . . . 

but this altar of morning says nothing is offered yet 

What does he care for wine whose staff is free 

or for bread who tastes of flowers 

or for any praise 

or mortal shade who is dark=bright 

forever Stranger slay 

our death and raise the murdered flesh of love 

O rainbeat ray 

of darkness yet arrayed with radiant morning. 



(68) 



Story from the Old Country 

In a quiet place let us learn. 

"Bd-Oule" — these are not merely letters, as some have claimed: 

Beloved son, Once upon a time 

There was a queen whose people fled the enemy; 

A nameless tribe, poor in war, 

They came to a deep river 

They could not cross 

They felt the enemy's spear 

They felt his arrow, 

Rich only in songs 

And images, 

they wept. 

From the center of weeping an ashy priest crept, 

"Send a little boy 

Weighted with heavy fear 

And his mother's sorrow 

And his sisters' loss 

Into the deep river." 

None would give, although the fierce shore 

Bled; at last the queen lifted her own four-year-old gently 

And offered him to the waters; Once-upon-a-time 

They say, a river parted and our people were named: 

"Bd-Oule!" the queen cried We- Are-Reborn. 



(69) 



THE RITUAL CUTS 



AAA/VAA 



( "there-one-sees-place" ) The first cuts 
are placed over the bridge of the nose and 
beneath the eyes. 




( "rain-wet-straw" ) Straw, signifying 
hair. The long lines are made near the 
hair to emphasize its beauty; following 
them are two very fine cuts called "head- 
word." 



o 



( "you-seek" or "kiss me" ) It is here, 
on the left cheek, that a man kisses a 
girl. 



( "the cuts that, at parting, cause the 
man to turn and look back" ) This 
series is marked on the third verte- 
bra of the spine. 



( "neck-good-to-touch" ) When a man 
embraces a woman he caresses these 
scars. 



(73) 



r 



V 







( "loins-place-cicatrizations" or "pass- 
over" ) The choice of this design rests 
with the individual. E. N. Sargent chooses 
"the sword." 



( "push me" ) A series of nine rows of 
nine horizontal cuts, placed on the inside 
of each thigh. 



( "water-drink-milk" ) An hourglass de- 
sign, placed on the left hand. 



This design is placed under the navel, and 
is often a representation of a lizard or 
some other animal. 



( "shoulder-cuts" ) 



The last design is placed between the 
breasts, and often takes the form of a 
series of links or of straight lines radiating 
from a central point. "Children of a hun- 
ter, who are poor." 



The preceding material is to be found 
in Volume One of Melville J. 
Herskovits' definitive study, 
The Dahomey, J. J. Augustin, Publisher. 
Gliickstadt, Hamburg and New York. 

(75) 



Bibliography 

Beier, Ulli, Bashonga Music 

Ellis, A. B., The Yoruba-speaking Peoples 

, Ewe Language 

Epega, Rev. D. Onadele, The Mystery of the Yoruba Gods 

Forde, Daryll, The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of S.W. Nigeria 

Herskovits, Melville J., The Dahomey 

Manoukian, Ewe-speaking People of Togoland and The Gold Coast 

Phillips, Ekundayo, Yoruba Music 

Rutherford, Peggy, Darkness and Light 

Westerman, Diedrich, A Study of the Ewe Language 

Black Orpheus, Nos. 7, 6 (special editions), 3. 

ODU, Nos. 2,3,4,5,7, General Publications Section, Minister of Education, 

Ibadan, Niger. 



(77) 






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